ASSU Erases Serra On Dubious Moral Grounds

Stanford’s Undergraduate Senate has no legitimacy when it erases Father Junipero Serra’s name from campus without any principled justification.

Old Union Night**This evening, in a near-unanimous vote, Stanford’s Undergraduate Senate voted to support the removal of Father Junipero Serra’s name from campus roads and buildings. They did this because, according to the bill, Father Serra’s responsibility for thousands of indigenous deaths causes continued psychological harm to Native Americans. Furthermore, he has no financial or cultural link to the university.

These factual contentions may well be valid, although we have disputed them in the past. More relevant, however, is the Senate’s failure to establish a clear philosophical framework that justifies why Father Serra’s name specifically ought be removed, but others should not. It was clear at tonight’s meeting that many Senators were not comfortable, for example, with removing Tresidder and Jordan’s names from campus buildings, yet nonetheless supported the bill. For this to be legitimate, Senators owe it to their student electors to explain what specifically makes this name removal morally justifiable. They failed to do so.

Why is a clear moral standard necessary for this bill? Senator Hattie Gawande contended that the Senate need not establish moral frameworks for, say, dining hall policy; thus, it is discriminatory to force the Native American community to create a moral standard. This argument fails on three levels. First, the Senate does at least implicitly always vote for policies on the basis of some standard. Whereas this standard is typically a simple cost-benefit test, such a calculus is more nuanced and complex in the case of removing the name of a historical figure; thus, the Senate ought to devote more time to a clearer principle. Second, ASSU President John-Lancaster Finley conceded that this bill is nothing more than a recommendation, and the chances of achieving actual change are low. Thus, given the bill’s unclear practical implications, there is a duty to ensure the principled stance of the bill is suitably well-defined. Third, unlike with dining halls, there are clear cases similar to Father Serra’s that the Senate will need to adjudicate, such as Jordan Hall’s title (Jordan was a noted eugenicist). The Senate needs to establish clear precedent for future student groups to determine whether their proposed name-ban reaches a certain threshold.

What clear standard does this evening’s bill create to determine what makes a building’s name unjustifiable? Senator Gawande argued that “harm to at least one person” makes it unjustifiable for someone’s name to adorn a building. By this logic, no school should ever name a building after Barack Obama, since his policies have lead to at least one death. If we presume Senator Gawande meant many deaths, her logic still seems problematic: Munger and Arrillaga have likely caused many people substantial harm in their commercial ventures over the years, not least given Munger’s law firm defended corporations in civil suits mounted by wronged consumers. This standard causes almost all building names to become morally unjustifiable. Unless the Senate is prepared to give every dorm a number, they need to find a better framework.

The second proposed standard, from ASSU Vice-President Brandon Hill, was a “utilitarian” one: he claimed that there were clear harms to Serra’s reign, and no obvious benefits. This specific argument is empirically dubious – Serra may well have restrained, not encouraged, Spanish imperialists, and received a sainthood from the liberal Pope Francis – but the standard itself is also flawed. A politician who razed an entire region to the ground, but brought strong economic growth to the rest of their country, would pass this moral test. Equally, given the enormous long-term benefits of societal integration, it is not at all clear in the long run that Father Serra’s actions led to more evil than good. Regardless of Father Serra himself, ‘good’ and ‘evil’, when applied to entirely different cultural contexts from centuries ago, are so subjective as to be almost useless as metrics for adjudicating people’s suitability for appearing on buildings.

When I pointed these flaws out to the ASSU Senate, and asked for the specific difference between (for example) Jordan and Father Serra, multiple senators and both ASSU Executives repeated the same caveat in the bill that makes Father Serra unique: he neither donated nor contributed to Stanford. This moral standard, if it is seriously the single criterion on which Serra is deemed to fail where Tresidder and Jordan pass, is abhorrent. The notion that donating money and resources to Stanford could turn a moral monster into someone whose name is sacrosanct is on face absurd. More to the point, it would make the ASSU Senate inconsistent with every other university movement to rename institutions they dislike. The UK’s #RhodesMustFall seeks the removal of Cecil Rhodes’ name from universities to whom he provided millions of dollars of scholarships. The Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs at Princeton is so named because Wilson was President of the university, yet still Princeton students believe his name should be effaced from their campus.

In fact, the only framework that the Senators could provide that was at all internally consistent was the Supreme Court’s oft-cited statement on pornography: the framework that “[you] know it when [you] see it”. Of course, the Supreme Court was intelligent enough to start with this standard, then develop an actual definition of the obscene – something our Senate seems uninterested in doing. More to the point, the whole reason this discussion matters is because people disagree, often emotionally, as to the moral character of Father Serra, and the appropriacy of his erasure: just ask the hundreds of Catholics at Stanford who deem him a saint, despite his past. One audience member suggested the Senate could pass this law, and then define a framework for future laws, which begs the question as to why they do not define a moral standard first and then decide whether a ban on Serra’s name is appropriate. This proposal would also create a powerful incentive to craft a framework with the sole purpose of justifying a vote to remove Father Serra’s name.

The Senate is entrusted with the decision-making power of nearly 7,000 undergraduates. When major changes are proposed to the face of Stanford’s campus – especially to the name of the street on which it lives – students deserve to be told the moral basis on which Senators voted, so as to understand why they made that choice and how their senators might vote on the removal of other names. Without such a moral basis, tonight’s resolution fails to hold even a shred of legitimacy. We as students should also hold ourselves to a higher standard, and elect Senators willing to ask even the most basic questions before rushing to embrace a recommendation.

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